April 17, 2024

Sustainability Stories: Volunteering at El Rio Hostel

Sustainable travel isn’t just a trend, and for our planet to survive, it needs to be the norm. Travel is well and truly back up and running, but you know what isn’t? Greenwashing. Not around here! Climate-conscious adventurers want to know how to travel sustainably, and ensure they leave a positive mark on the communities they come upon.  

We know that hostels are more environmentally friendly than other types of accommodation and that they produce 75% less carbon emissions than hotels. But what are they actually doing to get there? How can you sleep well in your dorm at night knowing you’re contributing to the greater good? 

Well, as DMZ once said, we’re gon’ give it to ya! In our new series, Hostelworld’s Sustainability Stories, we’ll be sharing exactly how hostels go above and beyond for the environment and their communities, straight from the horse’s hostels’ mouth! 



Meet El Rio Hostel 

Sustainability Stories: Volunteering at El Rio Hostel Buritaca

To kick off the series, we’re jetting to the Colombian Caribbean coast to hear about a hostel that hosts more than just holidaymakers and goes the extra mile (into the mountains) to improve life for local people. 

Tucked away in the jungle, near the tropical beaches of Tayrona National Park, sits El Rio Hostel (or Rio Hostel Buritaca). Known as a fun and sociable stop on the backpacker trail, complete with a riverside bar, private beach, and tipsy tubing, El Rio isn’t just a pretty face. Through educational, environmental and sporting programs, bolstered by volunteering visitors, the hostel helps hundreds of local people everyday. We sat down with the hostel’s Co-Founder, Ben Davies, and the El Rio Foundation’s Co-Director, Felix Sullivan, to learn about their journey and find out how you can get involved!  


Empowering a local workforce 

Sustainability Stories: volunteering at El Rio Hostel Buritaca

Before they even opened, El Rio made it their mission to employ a local workforce, not only of Colombians, but of Colombians from nearby towns and villages. But they didn’t just want to provide jobs, they wanted to help families ensure their own future. 

The area is well known because of the famous Tayrona Park beaches and historic jungle hike to Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City). Jobs in hospitality and tourism are like gold dust, but with one caveat, you must speak English. With a lack of English teaching in the area, a lot of companies look to bigger cities to employ people who speak the lingo of the gringos.  

El Rio wanted to give back to the community that they built their business on. Before opening, Ben began to teach English, starting with moto taxi drivers who ferry guests through the jungle, and moving to the rest of their team. Teaching English to staff turned into such a big job that the hostel employed a full-time teacher. Staff get to learn a language that may help them secure future jobs, and they can better engage with most hostel guests – it’s a win, win.  

El Rio now employ a team of 80 people, mostly from local villages. Roughly 12 full time hostel volunteers work alongside their team at any given time. One staff member has even moved from being a cleaner, to their Finance department and is now studying for a degree. What a character arc!  


The journey to volunteering 

Sustainability Stories: volunteering at El Rio Hostel Buritaca

Teaching English made El Rio want to give back to the community in other ways. They took a football down to the nearby village and invited local kids to a game, the kids jumped at the chance. This sparked their volunteering and charity plans.  

What started off as a football game, turned into a football club, then other sports activities based on the kid’s requests. Now, they run clubs everyday with the help of travelling volunteers. From theatre, to dance, and even circus skills, the list goes on. All clubs are free and running on donations. 

Helping their community became bigger than they ever expected, so to support the activities they created the El Rio Foundation, where they now fund and resource their charitable efforts. 


Education and childcare volunteering 

Sustainability Stories: volunteering at El Rio Hostel Buritaca

The more time they spent with people from the villages, the more they heard their needs. They discovered that during COVID-19 kids’ education was put on pause, as schools struggled to stay afloat. Children were out of school for 21 months, and many had huge gaps in their education. El Rio decided to do something about it. Now, they fund full time teachers and volunteers that educate children and teach adults English. Volunteers teach a whopping 60+ hours in the community every week! 

A key takeaway from the conversation with El Rio was how important it is to listen to the local community in order to support it. Instead of deciding how to best help, they hear about their struggles and find solutions. One example of this is when they learnt that there was no childcare available in the area, and that parents were struggling to work without anyone to take care of their little ones. El Rio quickly responded by setting up child minding facilities and hiring qualified volunteers to provide that much needed facility.   


Impacting the Indigenous community 

Thought it stopped there? Think again! If you haven’t been to the Colombian Caribbean coast then first off, add it to your future travel plans now. And secondly, while you’re there you need to book onto the Lost City trek, a gruelling 65km hike through the clay-filled Sierra Nevada jungle, where you learn about the tumultuous history of the spot. From Tayrona people hiding from Spanish conquest to paramilitary groups and cocaine factories. The stories are wild!  

On the trek, one of the highlights is learning about and meeting people from the two indigenous groups that still live in the mountains, the Koguis and the Wiwas. You’ll pass many people from the tribes as they glide up the mountain trails in traditional white clothes, unbothered by the incline and chewing on coca leaves.  

What does this have to do with El Rio? Well, even up in the mountains word spread fast about the awesome work they’re doing, and indigenous group leaders asked El Rio to help their children too. Volunteers embark on a trek of their own to teach English, other classes and run activities with children from indigenous groups.  As a traveller, I can’t think of a better way to become immersed in local culture! 


How travellers can get stuck in 

Sustainability Stories: volunteering at El Rio Hostel Buritaca

We know our travellers want to support hostels that strive to make positive change, and El Rio have hit the right balance of helping the community, whilst being mindful of maintaining culture. This is reflected in responses from local children. During a ‘Gratitude Week’ at the foundation, when the kids were asked what they were grateful for, their response was “thank you for bringing the gringos”, which says it all!  

El Rio is a hostel that truly helps travellers give back and there are loads of opportunities for you to get involved. Here’s how:  

Stay there 

A donation of $1.30 (COP 5,000) is added to every guest’s bill (you can opt out if you want to), but this means that by simply staying there, you’re already helping fund foundation activities.  

Order a Rum & Coke on a Wednesday 

Rum and Coke drinker? You will be now. If you order a rum and Coke at the bar on a Wednesday, you’ll fund 45 minutes of education for 20 children. You hear that right. Whose joining us at the bar?! On Wednesdays we no longer wear pink, we buy rum from El Rio! 

Volunteer for a day or two, or three… 

If you read this and thought “where do I sign up?!”, just ask at reception. The foundation is always looking for guests to volunteer and bring positivity to a child’s day. Especially if you’re a dab hand at circus tricks.  

Got a niche skill? Make it known! Felix recalled a time a dentist visited the hostel and offered their exper-teeth to local mouths. You don’t have to be a dentist, but if you have an idea of how you can make a difference, let them know.  

Become a long-term volunteer 

Travellers can apply to volunteer at the hostel with activities like yoga, social events and day trips with guests. Tipsy tubing with travellers and 3 free meals a day? Run, don’t walk to their DMs!  

In the foundation, they welcome long-term volunteers who are available for 4+ weeks to teach English, environmental education, sports and arts coaching and more!  

In exchange they offer free accommodation, 3 meals a day, your laundry done for you and discounted drinks. One way ticket to Colombia, por favor! 


? To book your stay at El Rio, click here.  

? To find out more about the foundation or donate online, click here.

? Fancy yourself their next volunteer? Email them on: foundation@elriohostel.com 



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